Summary and book reviews of Flora by Gail Godwin

Flora

By Gail Godwin

Flora
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  • Hardcover: May 2013,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2014,
    288 pages.

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Book Summary

Ten-year-old Helen and her summer guardian, Flora, are isolated together in Helen's decaying family house while her father is doing secret war work in Oak Ridge during the final months of World War II. At three Helen lost her mother and the beloved grandmother who raised her has just died.A fiercely imaginative child, Helen is desperate to keep her house intact with all its ghosts and stories. Flora, her late mother's twenty-two-year old first cousin, who cries at the drop of a hat, is ardently determined to do her best for Helen. Their relationship and its fallout, played against a backdrop of a lost America will haunt Helen for the rest of her life.

This darkly beautiful novel about a child and a caretaker in isolation evokes shades of The Turn of the Screw and also harks back to Godwin's memorable novel of growing up, The Finishing School. With its house on top of a mountain and a child who may be a bomb that will one day go off, Flora tells a story of love, regret, and the things we can't undo.It will stay with readers long after the last page is turned.

I.

There are things we can't undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.

That summer, Flora and I were together every day and night for three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August. I was ten, going on eleven, and she was twenty-two. I thought I knew her intimately, I thought I knew everything there was to know about her, but she has since become a profound study for me, more intensely so in recent years. Styles have come and gone in story-telling, psychologizing, theologizing, but Flora keeps providing me with something as enigmatic as it is basic to life, as timeless as it is fresh.

At the beginning of that summer with her, I seesawed between bored complacency and serious misgivings. She was an easy companion, quick to praise me and willing to do what I liked. My father had asked her to stay with me so he could cross over the mountain from North Carolina ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Flora begins, "There are things we can't undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life." What "regrettable acts" is Helen referring to? How does she try to make her remorse "constructive" and "of service to life," in telling the story of her summer with Flora?
  2. When Flora begins, Honora "Nonie" Anstruther is already dead, yet we get to know her intimately throughout the novel. In what ways do we become acquainted with Nonie's voice? What aspects of Nonie's personality are revealed through her loved ones' memories?
  3. Consider the descriptions of Old One Thousand, the Anstruther estate where Helen grows up. How does the house feel ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

A layering of perspective is one of the most interesting aspects of Flora. On the book jacket, novelist John Irving aptly likens Godwin's achievement to the pared-down psychological stories of Alice Munro. There are shades of the familiar in Flora, themes a reader is likely to have seen before – say, in Ian McEwan's Atonement. Familiarity isn't necessarily a bad thing, and Flora makes for a pleasurable, comfortable read.   (Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb John Irving
Flora is a novel as word-perfect and taut as an Alice Munro short story; like Munro, Godwin has flawlessly depicted the kind of fatalistic situation we can encounter in our youth — one that utterly robs us of our childhood and steers the course for our adult lives. This is a luminously written, heartbreaking book

Author Blurb Ann Patchett, New York Times bestselling author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto
Flora is a beautiful examination of character and the far-reaching repercussions of our actions. Gail Godwin brings grace, honesty, and enormous intelligence to every page.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [A] stirring and wondrous novel from Godwin…. [her] thoughtful portrayal of their boredom, desires, and the eventual heartbreak of their summer underscores the impossible position of children, who are powerless against the world and yet inherit responsibility for its agonies.

Booklist

Starred Review. [T]he wonder of this incisive novel...is how subtly Godwin laces it with exquisite insights into secret family traumas, unspoken sexuality, class and racial divides, and the fallout of war while unveiling the incubating mind of a future writer.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Unsparing yet compassionate; a fine addition to Godwin's long list of first-rate fiction bringing 19th-century richness of detail and characterization to the ambiguities of modern life.

Library Journal

A superbly crafted, stunning novel by three-time National Book Award award finalist Godwin (A Mother and Two Daughters), this is an unforgettable, heartbreaking tale of disappointment, love, and tragedy. Highly recommended.

MORE magazine

In a coming-of-age novel as exquisitely layered and metaphorical as a good peom, Godwin explores the long-term fallout from abandonment and betrayal, the persistence of remorse and the possibility of redemption.

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Gail Godwin’s Flora sneaks up on you. The premise is small, but ambitiously so in the 'small, square, two inches of ivory' sense that Jane Austen used to describe her novelistic palette.

Christian Science Monitor

Flora is a tightly focused, painful and eventually eruptive novel. Its ruminative, sometimes regretful narrator explores the complex heart of a child, showing us that it's not inevitably a sweet, gooey thing. It can be, as well, a shuddering volcanic island with but a single haunted inhabitant.

The Boston Globe

Flora is Godwin at her best, a compelling story about Helen’s growth of consciousness told with fearless candor and the poignant wisdom of hindsight.

Columbus Dispatch

On the surface, Gail Godwin’s luminous Flora is a quiet, simple novel about a few weeks spent in near isolation in the North Carolina mountains in the summer of 1945. Under the surface, however, run currents connecting the lives of the two main characters to those of dozens of others, present and especially past.

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Polio in 1940s North Carolina

March of Dimes poster about polio In the fictional North Carolina mountain town at the heart of Gail Godwin's Flora, a 1945 polio scare takes the life of one child and paralyzes another while the community scrambles to contain the disease. These tragedies, which form part of the cultural fabric of Godwin's fictional world, echo real events that took place in rural North Carolina in the 1940s, when the polio epidemic was peaking there. In 1944, the mountain town of Hickory, NC, experienced a devastating polio outbreak. When local facilities were not adequate to house the stricken, most of whom were children, residents mobilized. They repurposed a rustic health camp that had been built the year before for children recovering from tuberculosis, and built a new hospital on ...

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